The Rebirth of the Settlement House Movement

12/03/2010 6:00 AM |

Since the 1990s when there were so many government interventions in the arts and funding disappeared, it seems like the arts have had a really hard time justifying their existence. It seems that there's an intense need to articulate the importance of artistic expression within society. I know I'm often struck by the fact that the default position in the contemporary world is to justify the existence of art by leaning on children and arts education, where there is obviously a huge vacuum, but it seems like it also needs to be articulated for adults.
Well, we live in a society where there is a barrier between people who call themselves artists and those who don't perceive themselves to be. And this goes back to what I was talking about—where people view artists as talented and everybody else as untalented. When we bring artists into our programs, they're called the specialists—of course there's going to be resistance. Who are these people? They come in with all the fun and we're all so boring without them. There's this idea that artists need to be present for creativity to happen, and it's something we need to revisit.

And I think that artists have to reflect on what part they play in creating this barrier. How does it serve us; how doesn't it serve us? Because in a lot of senses we have become a real subculture and there are people who walk by those theaters in Lower Manhattan every day and never even look at what's going on and never think about walking inside. Even though it's almost cheaper than going to a movie. So what is preventing them from wanting to acknowledge this?

I think a lot of this is because we have all been so tracked by our education system and it's so ingrained in our culture—some people are this and some people are that. I think we really need to reflect on that and understand what is creating this tension and how can we chip away at it. I certainly hope that what we're doing at University Settlement will hopefully help to chip away at that.

You were part of Play-in-a-Day [an event that paired artists with young people in The Door's program to conceive, write, rehearse and perform a play over the course of a single day], which for me has been one of the most magical things that I've ever been a part of facilitating. I want to make that happen every week. And I have gotten a little bit of funding to start what I'm calling a Play Tank, which will bring together professional artists and our young staff.

This is also why I'm so thrilled to be working with Richard Lewis. He's been doing this for 40 years—working as a teaching artist in the schools and really focusing on helping us reconnect to our imaginative capacities. This summer a cover of Newsweek talked about "The Creativity Crisis". All these studies are showing that in our culture we are really losing our ability to think divergently and make connections. Richard's approach is not to keep saying "we have to keep doing the arts because the arts do this and the arts do that," because that hasn't worked. We now know more than ever—we can hook people's brains up to machines and we can see what lights up—it's really clear that the arts are essential to learning, but it isn't happening. I think Richard Lewis' answer is that each one of us has to reconnect to our own imaginings from when we were children.

We all start off as these incredibly creative beings. Everybody was born knowing how to imagine and we all are great pretenders in our early lives and what we need to do is find our way back there. To start being able to ask questions like, "what did I pretend," "what did I imagine when I was a child," "what questions did I have," "what did I wonder about?" And I've really taken that to heart because I do a lot of staff development at University Settlement, I do a lot of after school training of the staff, and that's the approach I'm really starting to take. How can we expect our staff to provide these critically consciousness-raising experiences for young people if they haven't connected with what they're passionate about, what they want to learn about, why they're there doing this, what they believe? Anybody who works with children has some kind of idealism buried within them—what does that look like?

As bad as things are, I feel like it's an exciting moment. I can't stop having a TED talk with breakfast every morning. I get so inspired by all these completely innovative thinkers who are finding some way around the limits.